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UN chief wrong to say anti-Muslim filmmaker abused free expression, says Middle East rights group

No restrictions to free expression should ever be tolerated, says the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (pictured) said last week that the maker of The Innocence of Muslims abused free expression
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (pictured) said last week that the maker of The Innocence of Muslims abused free expression

Denis Balibouse / REUTERS

Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the maker of the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims abused his right to freedom of expression. He called the making of the video a "disgraceful and shameful act."

"Freedoms of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose," Ban told a news conference. "When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way."

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) says Ban is wrong. Here's why.

Ban Ki-moon is fumbling his way through a minefield immersed in thick fog. Politicians often choose to brush aside abstract, Utopian principles to appease angry crowds and resentful governments. Regarding his comments on the anti-Muslim video, Ban is no different.

We respect Ban's right to have his own opinion, and consequently his right to express it. But we disagree with him – and hereby exercise our right to express this disagreement. This is free expression as we understand it.

Ban first condemned the video in the strongest words possible, a position we wholeheartedly agree with. But Ban took a further step, opining that the video itself doesn't deserve to be protected under the free expression umbrella.

Ban went on to say that freedom of expression should be protected when it is "used for common justice, common purpose." In one short sentence, Ban has stroked out our right to express unique thoughts, opinions and feelings, as they can't possibly always adhere to a common justice and a common purpose – assuming we believe that a common justice and purpose actually exist in the first place.

Ban offers a vivid example of what is to be expected when we allow ourselves to deny certain content the status of free expression. In such cases we can't simply stop there – rather, we are led to redefine freedom of expression as a tool, and to impose restrictions and limits based on what it should be used for. Such a definition will always lean toward protecting what is commonly accepted, and away from what is unique and controversial, thus annulling the need to protect free expression altogether.

The reaction of Google, as the owner of YouTube who broadcast the video, seems less harmful. But it's not. As the movie did not breach YouTube's terms of use, Google said it couldn't remove it. Instead, Google blocked the movie in certain regions, either voluntarily or due to some governments' demands. Google's selective censorship hurt free expression more than Ban did while trying to define its limits. Its message says, "We do not need to redefine anything, as long as we can block whatever we want, wherever, and whenever we want." Such discretionary power represents a serious violation of free expression, and of the user's freedom to choose.

While Google as a global service provider can't expect its users to react identically to content, it should not decide what the users in this or that country watch. It should, however, allow them to decide whether content should be flagged as controversial. Rather than content being removed, users should be warned about its controversial nature before watching it. Users who want to offer their rebuttal should be allowed to do so.

This same line of thinking could be the best approach to the recent Charlie Hebdo issue. Riding the wave of interest in the Innocence of Muslims, the French newspaper published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. The paper used its right to free expression to publish the cartoons. It should, in the name of free expression, allow the critics of these cartoons, the ideas they express, and even the condemnation of its own opportunistic act, to be published in its own pages.

No restrictions to free expression should ever be tolerated. Of course, such freedom will be abused by some, but it is in itself the best means to address such abuse. The cure for freedom's maladies is always more freedom.

Tamer Mowafy is Research Unit Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information based in Cairo, Egypt.

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